Museum as symbolic architecture of the new China

Exhibition spaces are ubiquitous in China today, and new museums are among the country’s most celebrated landmarks during the Xi Jinping era. But Rem Koolhaas predicted something different almost 30 years ago.

China has over the course of the last twenty years, built shopping malls and countless amounts of museums and cultural spaces, sometimes indistinguishable from one another, and that at a speed faster than the latter can be filled: all over the country, not just in major cities, some architectural gems have risen from the ground in the blink of an eye.

In Qingdao, the seventh largest city in China located south of Beijing, one of Jean Nouvel’s most recent constructions, the TAG museum, has recently opened to the public. To arrive at the museum, one drives through vistas of copper-colored landscapes: several dozens of clusters of anonymous buildings under construction compose an urban blandness sprouting around the port-city. Arriving at the edge of the bay area on the campus of the museum, the reward proves great as the museum’s architectural significance is undeniable. Light, reflection, transparency, virtuality, all of Jean Nouvel’s trademark elements are integrated in a continuous and seamless interplay between interior and exterior. We recognize important gestures as citations of the architect’s career over the past decades: the roof of Lucerne Culture and Congress Center (2000), the facade of the Fondation Cartier (1994), and an evolution of this form at Quai Branly (2006), the floors of the Philarmonie (2015). The level of ambition is remarkable and extreme: exterior electric blinds, adjustable ceiling heights, modular galleries, reflective ceilings, aluminum panels as facades, total museography and custom-designed furniture. Honoring the architect’s Louisiana manifesto, the building is a synthesis of his signatures.

It was Rem Koolhaas’ prediction in Singapore Songlines back in 1995 that history is doomed to disappear, the tabula rasa will become the norm. For Koolhaas, the example of the city-nation in the mid 1970s represented the future Mainland China, which is to say “modernization in its purest form.” At the time of writing his manifesto, Chinese cities’ state-of-becoming “Singapore” as the theoretical site of modernity had begun. Shenzhen-a sprawling metropolis linking Hong Kong to China’s mainland and a key manufacturing and technological research and development hub-was the first special economic zone designated by Deng Xiaoping in 1979, three years after Mao’s death. Its subsequent unbridled development in the 1980s and 1990s corresponded to a brutal break with the iconoclastic communist line of the Party in force since the Yan’an Forum of 1942 which consecrated Mao’s rule. What Deng triggered was the advent of the ubiquity of a new urban form that subsequently manifested itself in massive construction projects simultaneously overtaking Chinese cities at the end of the century. 

Cities have been built, infrastructure has been optimized for transaction, now how to occupy urban dwellers with disposable income and time to spare?

Indeed, this modernization first enacted in Shenzhen happened at unprecedented scale in China’s major cities: Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Guangzhou. The generation coming of age during the cultural revolution had to grapple with the problems of how to reckon with the demolition of hutongs (traditional residential constructions characterized by narrow alleyways in Chinese cities such as Beijing) all the while learning to live simultaneously with new technologies as well as in new cities. China has now arrived at Singapore’s predicament of 1975 as outlined by Koolhaas: cities have been built, infrastructure has been optimized for transaction, now how to occupy urban dwellers with disposable income and time to spare? Entertain them.

Famously, Koolhaas stipulated that the only activity of this modernity as exemplified in Asian cities at the turn of the millennium would be shopping. But the proliferation of museum spaces and the systemic integration of exhibitions in shopping centers as an urban phenomenon that can be observed in China today complicates this hypothesis. Indeed, the extreme promiscuity between shopping centers, exhibition spaces and museums as integrated urban forms has generated an “exhibition fever:” any public place is potentially exhibition site. 

This phenomenon isn’t new per say: cities like Paris in the mid nineteenth century incubated this phenomenon at the time of the first World Expos. But over time Paris officially condemned the proximity of commerce and culture notably with the rejection of the creation of the Arts of the Industry Pavilion at the Louvre. What one can observe in the Chinese city today is the full acceptance and interdependence of the display of commerce and culture in the modern city. The ubiquity of the museum and the exhibition in the city has made exhibition going as banal as shopping or taking public transport. In Wangfujing’s largest shopping center in central Beijing, a sprawling retrospective of Zaha Hadid’s built and unbuilt projects is pure entertainment: automated models, films, demonstrative 3D printers, virtual reality experiences. In Nanjing, UN Studio has just been commissioned a new development by the KWah group which will house, among other mixed used spaces, the most recent franchise of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art. 

The urban experience in China is more than transaction driven. With the museum being ubiquitous and offering exhibitions of all types of contents the city can be thought of as a perpetual World Expo.

The urban experience in China is more than transaction driven. With the museum being ubiquitous and offering exhibitions of all types of contents including blockbuster shows on tour from major Western Museums like the British Museum or the Metropolitan Museum, the city can be thought of as a perpetual World Expo. Indeed, the availability of art in all public spaces inside and outside that of the museum implies a radical democratization of it reminiscent of the scale and power which transformed the nature of the exhibition in the aftermath of the Crystal Palace in London. 

As Mainland Chinese cities have pushed the theoretical predicament of Singapore to a further extreme of entertainment, the culture of shopping and the possibility of shopping for culture are equally accessible but distinguishable. Exhibitions in public and commercial spaces exist in a new and very close parallel all the while resisting pure merchandising—a condition intimately linked to the nature of the experience of the public space as it has developed recent decades in China. In such a proposition for the experience of a city as World Expo, the question of the continued relevance of the museum as distinct architectural form and experience of culture is at stake. Today, with the countless museums that China has built in the last twenty years now open all over the country, the latter has become a critical incubator for hypotheses on the future of the museum of the twenty first century and a rising driving force in shaping the discourse around what forms it might adopt in the future.  

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